The United States’ controversial campaign of drone strikes will continue despite the accidental killing of a pair of Western hostages, four U.S. officials told The Daily Beast. These sources said they don’t expect the rules governing the strikes to change significantly.
Defense officials told The Daily Beast there was no immediate discussion to suspend their drone program, including the use of “signature strikes,” which target people based on patterns of behavior, even if their identity is unclear. American contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto were killed in one such signature strike in January.
Officials said that the military conducts far fewer signature strikes than the CIA, which attacked the compound in Pakistan where the two men were being held. But while acknowledging that Weinstein and Lo Porto’s deaths were tragic, defense officials described them as unavoidable.
“It’s a war. Tragedies unfortunately happen,” one U.S. official said.
On Thursday, President Obama announced that his administration will conduct a review of the January drone strike to find what “lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made.” Later that day, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said “our counterterrorism operations continue,” referring to the CIA drone program, and gave no indication that the rules, or “protocols,” governing those strikes would change.
“If there are reforms that are derived from the review that can strengthen those protocols or make those protocols more likely to result in successful counterterrorism operations, then the administration will act quickly to implement those reforms,” Earnest said.
The fact that the drone strikes will roll on even after officials acknowledged they had no idea they’d accidentally taken the lives of the two men—or that two American al Qaeda operatives had also been killed—undercut the administration’s insistence that the use of drones will come in for serious scrutiny.
The White House announced on Thursday that the CIA’s inspector general has undertaken a “review” of the January strike. But a former senior U.S. intelligence official with experience in such inquiries told The Daily Beast that they are notoriously ineffective at holding officials accountable for wrongdoing.
The former official pointed to an analogous case from 2001, when a missionary’s plane was shot down in Peru as part of a CIA counternarcotics program. The Peruvian military misidentified the plane and fired on it over the objections of agency personnel, leading to the death of an American woman and her baby. But the CIA Inspector General also found that the agency had routinely violated procedures on when to shoot down aircraft and had covered up evidence of its own failures.
Though 16 CIA personnel were given administrative punishments, they amounted to a “slap on the wrist,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the one-time senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in 2010 when the CIA revealed that the officers had been punished. Hoekstra said the agency’s “sloppy oversight” had contributed to the shootdown.
“Nothing happened” to the CIA personnel implicated in the accident, the former intelligence official said. In the case of the drone strike that killed the two hostages, the former official noted that “many times innocents are killed” in CIA drone attacks. “This one killed Westerners, so apparently this one had to be addressed.”
“They clearly have no idea, literally no idea, of who it is that they’re killing,” Chris Anders, the senior legislative council at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Daily Beast. “And there are thousands of people who have been killed through the drone program.” Anders noted that the administration has acknowledged eight American citizens have been killed in drone strikes, but that only one of them was knowingly targeted—radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a strike in 2011.
“If that same record is extrapolated out the thousands of drone strike deaths, it’s a bad record,” Anders said. “Nobody should feel that there’s any assurance that this is being carried out in a better or more competent way simply because there’s a review going on.”
There are at least three reviews currently underway addressing issues brought up by the attack that killed Weinstein: the CIA IG review, the inquiry that Obama ordered, and a White House-led review of the government’s policies on hostage rescue. That inquiry was prompted by what family members of U.S. hostages held by ISIS and other terrorist groups have called a troubling lack of communication among the various agencies of government that play a role in finding and rescuing hostages.
Elaine Weinstein, the widow of Warren Weinstein, criticized U.S. intelligence agencies in a statement Thursday for what she called “inconsistent and disappointing” assistance during the years her husband was held by Al Qaeda. “ We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. Government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”
While U.S. officials have said they didn’t know that Weinstein was in the compound that the CIA hit in Pakistan, they haven’t said if the agency knew from other reporting that Weinstein might be in the area, and whether that affected their decision to move ahead.
The U.S. government’s hostage rescue policy has been notoriously disjointed, with agencies withholding information from one another. Some in the government fear that this poor communication on hostage cases may have kept the CIA from fully considering the risk to captives before launching its drone strikes.
Obama addressed the CIA’s mistake during remarks Friday at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the creation of that agency. “I was asked by somebody—how do you absorb news like that that we received the other day. And I told the truth: It’s hard.”
Obama isn’t know for coming to the passionate defense of the U.S. intelligence community. But he praised the intelligence leaders in the room and said the work of their agencies was “vitally important to the security of the American people.”
“I’m absolutely committed to making sure that the American people understand all that you put in to make sure that we do it the right way,” Obama said.
As of now, no hearings about the drone strike have been scheduled by the CIA’s oversight committees in Congress.